The symphony orchestra world is rightly following and thinking about the striking Detroit Symphony musicians, who are fighting a 30 percent reduction in their salaries as well as substantial changes to the rules that govern how and when they work. A story by Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press Sunday adds considerably to the discussion, mostly by giving it a different frame from the usual labor-management dispute.
Unfortunately, he doesn't take his thinking about the symphony quite far enough. Or maybe symphony management itself (from whose viewpoint most of the story was written) hasn't done enough thinking. An orchestra as a "community of musicians," in the construction of the late Ernest Fleischmann quoted by Stryker, may sound like a good idea, but an undemocratic, top-down management system that imposes duties and obligations on the musicians without their central participation in the process is not.
The story begins with the Fleischmann quote: "The orchestra is dead. Long live the community of musicians." And then it sets out to show how orchestra management in Detroit wants to use Fleischmann's ideas. These include using orchestra musicians in many capacities -- as educators and chamber musicians, say, in addition to their work in the full-scale orchestra. I have argued for a similar approach myself, and well before me so did Fleischmann, who turned the LA Philharmonic into a major musical and community institution during his long tenure as executive director.
Stryker goes a long way toward explaining why this has never come about, a cluster of things from audience expectation (which he does not mention) to union work rules to management inertia and instability. Even better, he talks about the experience at the small Memphis Symphony ($4 million annual budget, less than 1/3 the size of the Oregon Symphony, 1/7 the size of the Detroit Symphony) , which allows its musicians to opt-in to an additional four weeks of work a year in addition to the mainline symphony system. They teach, mentor younger musicians, run their own concert series, even do music therapy, produce radio programs and work on the orchestra's website. Stryker says 85 percent of Memphis musicians participate.
The implication is that the musicians and orchestra staff are engaged in an ongoing exploration of how best to deploy the resources of the orchestra. Fair enough. But getting to that point in Detroit sounds much more difficult. Here's the key quote from Stryker's story:
"DSO president Anne Parsons says that the orchestra has a large menu of artistic, education and community program ideas -- some of which have already attracted the interest of funders -- that are too expensive to initiate without a new contract. They include a chamber music series in collaboration with a community partner, contemporary music concerts, extensive in-school mentoring and adding chamber music to this season's Beethoven festival."The "orchestra has a large menu." But that presumably does not include the musicians -- who ARE the orchestra. If a load of new responsibilities was about to land on my plate without my consultation, I'd resist, too, even if I thought they might be critical to the success of the organizations. That sort of change takes careful, detailed, even individual discussion: a general agreement to change the nature of the orchestra and a simultaneous discussion about what form that orchestra might take. That's a living, ongoing creative process, not a union v. management negotiation. And the musicians should be driving it, not having it imposed on them.
I like that Fleischmann called it a "community of musicians" rather than a community orchestra, whether he really meant it or not, because it sounds self-governing. The musicians, the staff, the audience, all have a stake in the orchestra. If they work together, decide together, create something distinctive together, they will succeed together, regardless of the Detroit Symphony's standing in the national orchestra rankings. Part of that success will be their ability to reach and convert new fans to classical music. Another part will simply be the community itself in action. A third part will be great music itself.
Stryker quotes one musician in the story, a French horn player who says he absolutely doesn't want to do anything else for the Detroit Symphony than play concerts to the best of his ability. I don't know if this is good reporting or not -- does this horn player stand for ALL the orchestra musicians? How representative is he?
Arts Dispatch wrote about this topic previously, and the comment thread to one of those posts was extremely instructive. One of the commenters was Una O'Reardan, a cellist in Detroit who once played for the Oregon Symphony. This is from her comment:
"Our management's threatening and punitive negotiation tactics have done nothing for fostering a respectful and collaborative spirit in dealing with our current fiscal problems. They've gone after a multitude of basic working conditions which ALL of our orchestral colleagues take for granted (such as service conversion, elimination of tenure, and not playing in direct sunlight or excessive heat, among others). If we were to agree to such changes, and set a precedent, it would most definitely affect my talented colleagues in Portland in future contract negotiations."Stryker's horn player, compared to this account, is a cardboard cut-out -- his position sounds intransigent and self-defeating. And by contrast, management sounds progressive and practical.
But O'Reardan's comment shows that there's another side to this story. And by that, I don't mean another inflammatory opinion. I mean another useful way of describing the situation. "Collaborative spirit" -- that's clearly not operative in Detroit. Will they be able to develop it? I have my doubts. Eventually, someone will capitulate to one degree or another, and the orchestra will play again. But the capitulating party will simply be waiting for "next time," when the balance can swing the other way.
These issues are difficult, of course, but they are exacerbated by our inability to behave democratically -- not the voting part, but the discussion part, the time we spend trying to find the best ideas wherever they may occur and then sharpening them in debate and disagreement. We may agree with this approach theoretically, but in practice it rarely happens in American life, at least from my experience. It requires open-mindedness, and that's in very short supply in the culture right now.